November 20, 2008 § Leave a comment
Published: Sydney Morning Herald, Metro, November 14, 2008.
PUBLIC recognition and renown mean little sometimes. Record sales and four-star reviews aren’t the salve for internal strife. Icelandic singer-songwriter Emiliana Torrini knows this all too well; the success of her second internationally released album – 2005’s beauteously austere ode to grief and passing, Fisherman’s Woman – did little to ease the pain or put to rest the memories that were its inspiration.
“After that record, I basically just had to make the decision that I would either do music differently or just have to stop altogether,” she says.
“There was just too much anxiety involved in making records and writing music, you know? I just didn’t want to go through some kind of self-torture each time.”
Torrini, chatting over the phone while on tour in Paris, is referring to the loss of her boyfriend in a car accident soon after she had relocated to Britain from Iceland in the early 2000s. The stunning folk hues of Fisherman’s Woman were woven with his memory.
“It was a very important thing for me to do and something that needed to be done right at that moment,” says the 31-year-old of the album. “Those kind of things let you see what’s happening very deep inside your sub-consciousness. It’s kind of like gaining an understanding of what such an experience like that is going to turn you into.”
It’s not a side of Torrini to which the public is often privy. While her pop-flecked songs have always resonated with an introspective quality, her music has been offset by her decidedly chirpy personality.
Indeed, despite some serious themes, today’s interview is sprinkled with her endearingly corny jokes and impersonations (even an operatically vocalised Superman makes an appearance at one point).
Torrini’s success in the recording industry has also worked to obscure her inner difficulties. Aside from Fisherman’s Woman – which went on to win three gongs at the 2006 Iceland Music Awards – and her brilliant 1999 record, Love In The Time Of Science, she was selected by director Peter Jackson to sing Gollum’s Song, the end theme to Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers.
In 2003 she and songwriting partner Dan Carey penned Kylie Minogue’s worldwide smash Slow.
Torrini, who lives for most of the year in Brighton, England, says writing has always been a means of personal release.
“The only thing that interested me in school was when we had to write a story or something,” she says. “It just seemed so natural and necessary.
While not quite hilarious, her wonderfully diverse new album, Me And Armini, sees Torrini writing with a kind of newfound energy and confidence. Cuts such as Gun and Dead Dog pulse with a kind of sinister, electrified undertone, but songs such as Big Jumps and Jungle Drum shimmer with joyous pop melodies and unabashed playfulness.
“I was just having more fun and allowing myself to put out there whatever wanted to happen,” she says. “I just let everything come out and tried not to worry about it.
“I used to worry that certain songs were too happy or something but I’ve really learned to just let them be what they are.”
Interestingly, Torrini – who, with Carey, writes in an entirely improvisational manner – puts much of the album’s joy down to its backdrop. As she goes on to explain, much of the album was tracked back home in Iceland.
“Being back in Iceland and writing for five days was just so amazing,” she says. “It’s just somewhere that’s so ingrained in me and makes me so happy.
“To me,” she says before pausing, “Iceland is the queen bee.”
Monday 7.30pm, Metro Theatre, city, 9550 3666, $46.
There’s no place for self-doubt in the music of Icelandic songstress Emiliana Torrini. Dan Rule reports.
November 20, 2008 § Leave a comment
Published: The Vine, November 11, 2008.
Madlib the Beat Konducta
WLIB AM King of the Wigflip
Since his early days in 90s Oxnard, California crew Lootpack, the absurdly prolific Otis Jackson Jr – the man better known as Madlib – has risen to become one of post-millennium hip-hop’s most significant, innovatory and influential producers.
The chief muse behind Peanut Butter Wolf’s iconoclastic Stones Throw imprint, he has plied his loose, crudely treated psyche and soul-riddled beats to some of the last decade’s signpost releases, and come to redefine the bounds of west coast rap in the process. His surrealist Madvillain collaboration with masked New Yorker MF Doom and mind-bending Jaylib alliance with the late great Detroit beat-smith J Dilla are considered two of modern hip-hop’s generation-defining records; his falsetto alter ego MC Quasimoto has garnered similarly high praise.
WLIB AM: King of the Wigflip, Madlib’s third instalment in his Beat Konducta series, shifts directions from its previous episodes, largely bypassing the exotic, recontextualised soundtracks and scores that engendered Vol 1-2: Movie Scenes and Vol 3-4: India for more traditional hip-hop underlay. But that’s not to suggest that Madlib is traversing conventional territory here. Far from it.
Everything from WLIB AM’s grainy, crackle-riddled soul samples and funk-infused joints, to its divergent schedule of guest vocalists – think master MC Talib Kweli, Detroit underground icon Guilty Simpson, stoner soulstress Georgia Anne Muldrow, Prince Po, MED, Murs, Stacy Epps and old school west coaster Defari – instil this collection with a loose-limbed and persistently flavoursome downbeat sensibility. The churning, droning backdrop of ‘Heat’, the burbling bass line of ‘Disco Dance’ and low-key orchestral pulse and nimble Kweli verse of ‘What it Do’ set the mood to brilliant effect. MED chips in with a slick verse over the sinister, lurking synth ‘The Ox (805)’
But this isn’t just a cruiser. Madlib counters the loping grooves with plenty of rugged, lively cuts. ‘Guilty Simpson’ explodes over a battalion of brass and a hopelessly fat break on the aptly named ‘Blow the Horns on ‘em’ – all attitude and posture. “I’m so hot I need a fan / You’re so not you need a fan,” he spits. “Your beats are so wack you need a band.” Elsewhere, Defari crafts a tight verse over a classic, kinetic funk hook on ‘Gamble On Ya Boy’, while Prince Po rocks a zigzagging analogue organ sample on ‘The Thang-Thang’. The urgent, stabbing strings and break-beat bounce of ‘I Want it Back’, which sees Madlib tag-team with little his brother Oh-No, is another fine moment.
This won’t go down as a classic hip-hop release; typically the Beat Konducta records function as sprawling tasters rather than tightly focussed albums. That said, WLIB AM – which just happens to be the final record in label BBE’s wonderful Beat Generation series – is a fine and brilliantly unpredictable addition to Madlib’s hopelessly large catalogue. Like everything he touches, this record is filled with both fascinating weirdness and flecks of pure gold.
November 20, 2008 § Leave a comment
Cover Story: The Age, A2, November 8, 2008.
Best known for her whimsical drawings that appear worldwide in inboxes everyday, Kat Macleod steps out from behind her illustrations and talks with Dan Rule
KAT MACLEOD IS NOT used to this. Her gaze is all but affixed downward; her shoes seem the focus, the much needed distraction.
Over the course of this afternoon’s encounter, the Melbourne artist spills a stream of diffident signifiers. She smiles mutely at some questions, shifts in her seat at others. She fiddles with inanimate objects – a piece of cardboard, her diary, a drawing pin – whatever is in reach. Nervous laughter fills the room from time to time.
Illustration can be a way of concealing oneself, the artist, from view. Exhibitions, photographers, interviews – for Macleod, it is all new and frightening terrain.
“Because of the way I’ve been working for the last nine years, I’m always hiding behind the books and the magazines,” she says, brushing a stray lock of hair from her face, letting it fall again. “It’s just so weird to come out and be there on the night and stand up in front of everyone and say, ‘Hey there, this is my show.’ It’s just bizarre to me.”
We’re sitting in the large, bright kitchen area of Macleod’s shop-top Carlton studio, from which she and two of her best friends run their boutique graphic design company Ortolan. The kitchen, it seems, has long been taken over as her extra-curricular workspace for her debut exhibition The Tiniest Spark, which opened at Fitzroy’s Lamington Drive gallery this week. Inks and pencils and boxes overflowing with misshapen relics of fabric and paper crowd what was once the lunch table. Stray buttons, sequins, bits and bobs scatter out in punctuation. Albums filled with brand-new, postcard-sized originals find their place on one end of the couch beside. It’s an incredible, visually striking jumble.
“I haven’t been sleeping,” she says, shooting a glance towards the clutter of her materials. “I think I’m well on the way to having a nervous breakdown.”
Her anxiety would seem perplexing to those who haven’t met Macleod. At only 29, the artist’s fragile, highly gestural line, watercolour, embroidery and collage drawings have made her one of Australia’s most influential and quietly renowned illustrators. Her beautifully tactile works have adorned personal projects for anyone from fashion doyenne Collette Dinnigan to ARIA-winning singer-songwriter Clare Bowditch, appeared in countless high-profile magazines and branding assignments worldwide, filled three hardcover books – including Jane Rocca’s 2005 recipe book The Cocktail and this year’s hilarious Michi book Like I Give a Frock – and helped make the wonderfully sardonic Michi Girl online fashion and weather forecast an international cult phenomenon.
“I’m just so used to someone sending me a story or a brief, and I read it and respond to it and really go through that graphic designer, problem-solving kind of process,” she muses. “So I’ve always kind of found it difficult to talk about what I do.”
There’s a pause, some more indiscriminate fidgeting. “I guess my work is about being indicative,” she admits finally. “Something doesn’t have to be the most perfectly rendered drawing of a hand or something like that, but can capture a subject and sum it up in a few lines. My dad calls my girls ‘the three-fingered ladies’ because they’re often missing a couple,” she laughs.
This sense of economy and fluidity of line is central to Macleod’s work. While glamorous and ornate, her depictions of femininity have a strikingly raw and minimalist quality. They appear to capture only the essential gestures and details. Crude embroidery or cuttings of coloured paper and fabric adorn her sparse, grey-lead forms. Drops of watercolour add subtle flourishes of hue and texture.
“I sit there with my pencil and my eraser and I don’t know which is more important sometimes,” she laughs. “When I used to do life drawing, my teacher was really fastidious about anatomy and really anti-outline. So I never ever told him that I did commercial drawings for the whole time I went to the classes because I thought that if he saw them he was going to be outraged.”
It’s a sensibility that always struck Chloe Quigley, the co-founder of the Michi Girl micro-empire and now Macleod’s business partner (along with Simone Elder) in Ortolan. “She can abridge a whole three-page story into just a gesture of a hand or pigeon toes,” she says. “She only needs one little facial expression or nuance and she can just condense so much thought and feeling into it, which is just so rare.
“One of the first ever drawings she did of Michi, she just had a duck on her hand, and to us it was just perfect. Here was this beautiful, glamorous girl, but she had a duck. It was kind of crazy and just great.”
While the spectre of classic fashion illustrators such as the late Rene Gruau – the Italian artist whose iconic work engendered the high-style visual identities of magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Marie-Claire in the late 1940s and ’50s – resonates throughout Macleod’s work, she affords her characters a kind of humanity that is rare in the often alienating world of fashion and high-end design.
“Her work is quite glamorous sometimes, but never cold. She’s just connected with something truly innocent and there’s not a hint of arrogance about her talent, which is just an incredible quality.”
Macleod has always drawn, but never thought of herself as an artist. Growing up in Burwood with two older brothers and a younger sister, she remembers illustrating and dressing strings of paper dolls that her mother had made and recalls her grandmother teaching her to use watercolours. Nevertheless, she doesn’t think of her family home as a particularly creative one. “Mum was a school teacher and not really artistic at all and Dad is a civil engineer and really quite technical, so I don’t quite know what it was,” she says. “I think most little girls are into colour and dresses and things.”
It wasn’t until her third year of a graphic design degree at Swinburne University – in which she studied off-campus at 3 Deep Design as part of the university’s industrial-based learning program – that her illustration career abruptly and unexpectedly began. Her seniors at 3 Deep spied some of her drawings and illustrations in one of her notebooks and within months had commissioned her to begin an extended series of illustrations that would result in the 2002 limited-edition book Bird, which has since gone on to win more than 10 design and illustration awards. “I was still just trying to work out whether or not I wanted to be a graphic designer,” says Macleod.
David Roennfeldt of 3 Deep remembers being enamoured by the distinctiveness of the then 20-year-old’s approach. “She had an innocent approach to her work and was constantly doodling and day dreaming. The Bird project came out of a need to harness her talent.”
At a time when graphic design was flooded with computer-based art, Macleod’s work reintroduced notions of the object. “I think the tactile nature of a lot of her work, combining materials with drawing, opened illustration back up to the opportunity of being used in a variety of contexts.”
Macleod speaks of her long-awaited exhibition, which features 66new postcard-size originals and several A3 prints, in terms of process rather than theme. The Tiniest Spark – the title of which comes from a lyric in the Bjork song Isobel – refers to an indefinable inclination as opposed to heavily conceptualised schema. “The full lyric goes, ‘In the forest pitch dark, glows the tiniest spark, it burst into a flame’,” she says with a smile. “I kind of thought about how I work, especially on commercial jobs, and I really related to that.
“It’s kind of like people will send me a story or something – if it’s for Vogue or whatever – and I have to pick one little thing out of a story to draw. So it’s kind of like this tiny little spark of an idea that sets off the drawing, which then kind of develops a life of its own as it becomes more layered and polished. It’s very aesthetic and kind of intuitive.”
But as she goes on to admit, there is a more practical side to the show’s title. “It also kind of relates to the fact that the works are so small,” she says. “My friend Jamie keeps emailing me, saying, ‘How are the tiny sparks going?’
“I guess, because it’s my first show,” she pauses, stifling a self-deprecating chuckle, “I needed to give myself at least something to hang on to.”
The Tiniest Spark by Kat Macleod runs until Saturday, November 29, at Lamington Drive, 89 George Street, Fitzroy.
November 20, 2008 § Leave a comment
Published: The Age, EG, November 7, 2008.
Two musicians lend each other their ears, writes Dan Rule.
It’s tough to even get a question in between the banter. Cornel Wiczek and John Lee have their own decidedly brotherly thing going on. Throughout today’s encounter at a Collingwood cafe, they manage to consistently finish each other’s sentences, gossip about new equipment and chuckle incessantly at in-jokes. “We’re so close, we even have a David Lynch club happening,” boasts Wilczek, deadpan.
It’s indicative the pair’s growing musical relationship. Despite their vastly divergent musical backgrounds, Wilzek (the 34-year-old classically trained composer behind the hyper-fragmented electronic craft of Qua) and Lee (the 33-year-old former Geelong band guy who now makes the fluid, electronically-inclined psychedelic tropes known to most as Mountains in the Sky) have become like two peas in a musical pod in recent times.
“I think it’s really important to have peers in your life as an artist,” offers Wilczek, originally a classical guitarist hailing from Adelaide. “Otherwise you miss out on a whole range of sensibilities that you wouldn’t bring to your music on your own.”
“And Cornel can tell me which key my songs are in and all that sort of stuff,” adds Lee laughingly. “Because I wouldn’t have had a clue about otherwise.”
Aside from releasing their respective new albums – the frighteningly brilliant, heavily abstracted pop of Qua’s fourth album Q&A and the shimmering orchestrations and colour-drenched melodies of Mountains in the Sky’s third release Electron Suite – through the same label within a week of each other, they plan to launch them together with one huge, multi-pronged set at the Corner tomorrow night. But the pair’s coming-together has very little to do with expediency.
Since meeting through a mutual friend at the start of the decade, the twosome have found themselves sharing an increasingly analogous artistic plane. It began with Wilczek, who spends much of his week composing soundtracks for film and television, mixing Lee’s second Mountains release Accipio (2006) and has since developed to the point of the two becoming mutual sounding boards for one another’s every idea and muse.
“In the last year it’s become this kind of joint obsession,” says Lee, who cites listening to hip-hop in the late 90s with the guys from the Avalanches as opening his mind to a world outside of rock. “We were always communicating with each other about what were feeling was important and all that kind of stuff, so they have ended up really informing each other.”
“We’d literally be writing a track and emailing it to one another,” adds Wilczek. “Having that extra pair of ears instantly opens up another perspective.”
It would be fair to suggest that their respective aesthetics can be heard on each other’s records. While Lee’s 2005 debut Celestial Son and the aforementioned Accipio swooned with sample based flourish and low-key, break-beat-bred grooves, the virtually sample-less Electron Suite – which features instrumentation from long-time collaborator Stu MacFarlane, Pete Cohen, Matthew Watson and Simon Parker – shudder’s with a more sprawling, deconstructive sensibility that seems to point directly to Wilczek, who again played the role of Lee’s mix engineer.
“I feel like I’m learning a lot more about sound,” says Lee. “Cornel has been a huge influence, not just musically but in terms of technology and learning how to use the tools that I’m using, which is really important. If you don’t feel confident with the tools that you’re using, you don’t necessarily push them as far as they can go.”
Q&A, on the other hand, pulses with a kind of asymmetrical pop energy that was hardly prominent in the shuddering minimalism and ambience of early records Forgetabout (2002) and Painting Monsters on Clouds (2004), and the unhinged improvisational flows of this July’s Silver Red.
For Wilczek, who enlisted Sydneysider Laurence Pike (of Triosk and Pivot fame) and James Cecil (of Architecture in Helsinki) on drums, the record was a chance to simply let go. “It was pretty much the simplest conceptual basis I’d ever come up with, which was making the record really fun and loud and really colourful,” he says.
Adds Lee: “We spoke a lot about the fact that we’re going to be making records for a long time and there’s a lot more time for making ambient music,” he pauses. “Like when we’re eighty and running marathons.”
Qua and Mountains in the Sky play the Corner Hotel on Saturday night.
Q&A and Electron Suite are out now through Love+Mercy/Shock
November 20, 2008 § Leave a comment
Published: Music Australia Guide, #60, November 2008.
(One Little Indian/Shock)
Ageing rockers outstaying their welcome are embarrassing. So is a determination to impart a tottering take on a contemporary ‘young person’s’ genre. So, you’d think The Fireman – the collaborative electronic project by Sir Paul McCartney and producer par excellence Youth (aka Martin Glover) – might be approached with trepidation. But Electric Arguments (their third record) hums a very different tune. From the rollicking, dirty blues guitars and hollering vocals of tearaway opener Nothing Too Much Just Out of Sight, this is anything but old man material. Over 13 sketches, they visit the disparate terrains of atmospheric pop, reverb-drowned swamp rock, narcotic house beats and drifts of field-recordings and ambience. Where the previous two Fireman explorations – Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest (1993) and Rushes (1998) – chiefly dealt in electronic sounds, Electric Arguments breathes with instrumental and vocal life. It oscillates between spaciousness and intimacy; pop melodies (Sing the Changes) equalise more taciturn, abstract phrases and textures (Travelling Light, Universal Here). It’s an interesting tension. McCartney’s voice rules these cuts, but never impedes them, and it’s fascinating to hear his iconic vocal chords in such an unfamiliar musical context. Outside of conventional pop/rock idioms, an aging ‘Macca’ still has much to give. A genuine, relatively progressive artistic statement.
November 20, 2008 § 1 Comment
Published: Music Australia Guide, #60, November 2008.
Bloc Party’s much anticipated third album Intimacy arises from a backdrop of great personal transformation. But frontman and creative force Kele Okereke says his band is all the better for it, By Dan Rule.
Kele Okereke is like a pendulum. A conversation with the 26-year-old – in this instance via phone from Canada, where Bloc Party are touring – might be better described in terms of oscillating, hushed ebbs and loquacious flows. Like the schizophrenic musical worlds he’s rendered as the vocal and creative logician behind the London quartet, Okereke’s articulation darts from near-mute reservedness to sudden verbosity. Distractions threaten too, as fellow band members walk in and out, and the “very strange email, man, very strange”. But each time there’s an unreserved apology. “I’m gonna focus, man, I’m gonna focus!”
Enveloped somewhere between are the insights, the pearls of personal data.
“This wasn’t about rationale, or making some kind of point,” he says of Intimacy. “I was just going to write about what I felt moved by. I was only going to write about things that I was really emotionally attached to.” He falls quiet, second after uncomfortable second ticking by.
You see, for Okereke – who eventually breaks the silence with a long, uneasy sigh – the intimacy to which the album title refers lies only in the (still raw) past tense. “It transpired that all the songs ended up coming from a similar place,” he continues gloomily. “They all ended up being about my break-up, and really, what is more powerful than a break-up?”
Intimacy’s predecessors – 2007’s A Weekend in the City and 2005’s lauded debut Silent Alarm – drip with an unreserved candour. Where Weekend spliced personal reflections into a heavily conceptual social commentary on life in contemporary London, Intimacy’s heavily synthesised, guitar-lashed cuts do away with premise altogether. The album’s impassioned lyrical sketches are anchored only by intuition, and personal expression. It’s written all over tracks like the static-shrouded Trojan Horse, which sees Okereke weave the tiny nuances and details of a relationship into an abrasive, noise-soaked vista. “You used to take your watch off when we made love,” he croons. “You used to close your eyes when we kissed goodbye.” One Month Off, meanwhile, has the singer in a heartbroken rage. “I can be as cruel as you,” he spits, “fighting lies with lies.”
“We just didn’t have any preconceived ideas,” offers Okereke, lightening up a little. “We had to respond really intuitively to what was happening, it was like the songs could have gone anywhere. “As the principle songwriter, that’s been the point I’ve really been trying to get to. When you’re not going in there with any expectations or rules, it’s like the sky is the limit and you can do whatever you want. I found it a very liberating way of working, you know. You’re only really constrained by your imagination.”
Bloc Party’s choice to rush-release Intimacy digitally in late August – almost two months before physical release – rose from a similar mindset. For Okereke, who reveals the band only received final masters two weeks before initial release, the decision was far more personal than business-minded.
“It was completely reactive to how we did the second record,” he says. “By the time A Weekend in the City came out, it seemed really removed from where I was as a person. A lot of those songs were written, lyrically, at the end of 2005 and so I wasn’t really feeling the subject matter at all anymore. Then having to do press and talk about it for six months after that kind of ruined it for me.”
There’s little potential for stagnation in the band now. Indeed, it’s been a time of great change for Bloc Party, who originally formed after Okereke and guitarist Russell Lissack met at the end of high school in 1999. As well as Okereke’s newly single status, bassist Gordon Moakes became a father. Intimacy also sees the band’s current record deal expire, leaving Bloc Party, for all intents and purposes, free agents.
But according to the ever-erratic Okereke, it’s nothing to be feared. For him, change – personal or otherwise – only fuels creativity. “I feel like these three records work really well as a tryptic or something,” he says. “When we come back, we have to come back with something from somewhere completely different.
“It’s going to be quite a challenge,” he pauses, his voice suddenly rising into a rare chortle of self-deprecating laughter.
“But luckily for us we’re just such great musicians that I’m sure it won’t matter.”
Intimacy is out now via Shock.
November 9, 2008 § Leave a comment
Published: Rhythms, November 2008.
Laura Jean’s signpost Eden Land album is work of personal and creative revelation. By Dan Rule.
You wouldn’t describe Laura Jean as most reserved or reticent of people. Spending time with the 27-year-old songwriter – today sharing tea and story at an outdoor café in Melbourne’s inner north – isn’t unlike catching up with an old friend. Conversation flows easily; countless topics are breached and dissected. There’s laughter too, and lots of it. She giggles and bellows all manner of oddly hilarious noises; she buried her face in her hands.
It feels nothing like an interview, and in a way, it’s not. “I’ve got no agenda you know,” she says with a shrug of the shoulders. “When I’m having an interview with someone I’m just talking with someone. I know that they have the power to shift things around, but I really don’t care.”
“I honestly don’t care if people get the wrong idea about me. I’m going to be making music for a long time no matter what happens and I can’t help being myself you know.”
It says a lot about Jean – born Laura Jean Englert – who earlier this year released her incredibly poignant, self-exposing second album Eden Land. Charming, goofy, funny or no, there’s nothing about this young woman that even approaches affectation or pretext. But that’s not to say that she’s an easily read book.
Like the subtly ornate vignettes that weave and entwine their way throughout Eden Land, there is a genuine inscrutability to the young artist. The notion this affable, easy-going woman – who released her wondrous debut Our Swan Song as a mere 24-year-old in 2006 – being capable of such profound artistic rumination and sensitivity seems to rest in anomaly.
Surprisingly, it’s the same way for Jean herself. Even for it’s author, Eden Land is still a difficult concept to grasp. “I can’t remember writing Eden Land,” she says. “I don’t know how it came about and I think maybe I’m not allowed to remember how a lot of it happened. I know that sounds weird,” she admits.
“I feel like it was just this weird little glitch that just happened by its own accord and I didn’t have a lot to do with it. It sort of felt like it was effortless and like I just channelled it and there it was.”
“I purposely didn’t want to get too smart or analytical about these songs, because I felt my first album was a little too much like that. So I just made the decision that I’d just let them come out naturally and not be self-conscious about the simplicity of them and just really not worry about it.”
Music has always held a certain mystique for Jean and she likes it that way. Having grown up as part of a large extended family on the Central Coast of New South Wales, she remembers attending what describes as “rock ‘n’ roll church” and studies the saxophone from the age of 10. But by the time she was a mid-teen she had traded reed instruments for the guitar and was writing songs with her sister, later submitting them to demo competitions on Sydney community radio stations like 2SER. “I remember I was like 17 and we got selected to play as part of this gig after sending a demo into 2SER,” she recalls smilingly.
“My sister and I had never sung into a microphone before, so we were like ‘Wuuh, wuuh, wuuh’, into the mic and being all freaked out, not knowing what was happening,” she laughs. “We hid in the storeroom at The Globe in Newtown and we cried. We were like, ‘We have to runaway, let’s just run down the street and not do it’. But then I was just like, ‘No, we’ve got to do it’. And so we did.”
With a taste for music, she enrolled in a music degree at the Northern Rivers Conservatorium in Lismore, but it didn’t last. “I was only there for about six months, but I couldn’t handle it,” she says. “I was a bit arrogant, like ‘No one’s going to tell me how to write a song when I’m 18’. I just always had this innate idea that I would refine what I do naturally and in my own way.”
“I think it’s really important in your artistic development to be a bit of a dork for a while and not having adults telling you or touching what you do, especially when you’re a kid. You have to learn to create your own unique little vision.”
She did just that. By the time she 19 she had already moved to Melbourne and was immersing herself in the left-of-centre folk and indie scene, later discovering a kinship with artists like Grand Salvo, Oliver Mann and Kes. Following an EP in 2003, her stunning, fanciful debut Our Swan Song was released through Unstable Ape in 2006, creating an immediate buzz amongst indie sorts with Jean’s incredible vocal hues and evocative lyrical sketches.
“I don’t always write within my capabilities,” Jean muses. “I might write a guitar line, but what I’m hearing in my head for the vocal isn’t always something I can sing yet, so I have to learn how to sing it. I have to do big jumps and they’re quite challenging, and I’ve actually been forced – because of my song writing sensibility – to learn how to sing like that. It’s sort of like ‘Deal with it voice!” she laughs.
Eden Land proves all the more masterful for it. Recorded with Chris Townend at Big Jesus Burger, the record glimmers with organic instrumental dynamics, wondrous minor key melodies and of course, Jean’s soaring, fluttering vocal. But it’s her song writing that really sets the record apart. Riddled with Biblical imagery and evocative metaphor, Eden Land follows a poignant tale of confusion, identity and ultimately, self-discovery.
“While I don’t know how I came up with the concept, I knew the songs belonged together and that they were from a world just like Earth, but not the same world,” she posits. “My vision was a world that was exactly like ours, but with these tiny little differences. It was almost like a parallel world to that reflected us, but there were just elements of bizarre difference and fantasy that wouldn’t happen here… Quite naturally the songs started referencing Eden concepts. I didn’t have to try; it just felt like they wanted to write themselves quite naturally to a theme.”
“I was in a really happy place when I wrote Eden Land and thought that I just had my shit sorted out,” she continues. “I just thought my life was great; I had a job and had all this stuff. But it was really a case that my life was great on the very surface. I was only 23 or 24 and I really don’t think I knew myself. So I thought I was happy but I didn’t really know what happiness was.”
“Because I got into a relationship when I was 18 and broke up with that person in the middle of writing Eden Land, or right at the end of writing it. So I was in a really weird headspace where there was a lot of shit bubbling in my subconscious that I had totally repressed. And I guess because something in me is just drawn towards truth, it just forced its way out in these little songs. And the songs just came like that,” she clicks her fingers. “I’d just come home and, bang, write it.”
Indeed, the tale of self-discovery may have come from the sub-conscious, but it was anything but fictional. Jean had fallen in love with a woman, her now band mate and wife Jen Sholakis (the two were married in a civil ceremony in New Zealand two years ago). “For me it was a marker in time and the sense that my life was going in a different direction,” she says. It wasn’t just a commitment to Jen, but a real commitment to myself – it was a commitment to truth.”
“I think the reason it took me so long was because I had all this stuff inside me that I hadn’t dealt with, from being a Christian, and having been brought up to think that homosexuality was wrong. I remember being 13 and arguing with people at school, saying ‘Homosexuality is wrong!’ and my history teacher just going ‘Oh god, who is this kid?’,” she laughs, “all the while being in love with my best friend.”
“Somehow I managed to reconcile the two. That’s the amazing thing about the human mind really, you can really fool yourself and write off some feelings as bizarre glitches in your brain, like my feelings for girls. When I met Jen and we fell in love, I just felt like this whole half of my being that I didn’t know was there had arrived, and I just went ‘Oh, this is how I’m meant to feel’.”
But according to Jean, her new sense of personal clarity doesn’t necessarily translate to her music. To her, the meaning behind her sketches will always be fluid and indefinable. “I think songs keep on growing and taking on different meanings the more you live your life,” she muses. “So maybe next year I’ll decide that those songs were actually about something else.”
Eden Land is out through V2/Shock